The Santa Monica lawyer and his wife were entertaining a powerful client and his two children over brunch recently when the man of import looked up at a trellis and said: “Did you see that rat?”
All heads tilted skyward to catch sight of a portly six-inch-long rat waddling across some bougainvillea.
“Oh, yeah,” said the lawyer, feigning casualness. “It’s all part of living in Santa Monica with nature. You know--the rats, squirrels and possums.”
Recounting the incident, the lawyer’s wife said the remark was borne out of a desperation to regain composure. But the fact is, according to mammalogists, exterminators and health inspectors, he was right on the money: Rats are an inherent part of living with nature, or nature living with us.
And lately, the rodents have been settling in throughout the Westside in increasing numbers, with some of the worst problems occurring in some of the toniest neighborhoods. At million-dollar homes in northern Santa Monica and at mansions in the hills of Bel-Air, residents are recounting similar hair-raising tales of rats invading their attics and dining in their kitchens and back yards. Exterminators report a surge of calls in recent weeks from distressed homeowners and business people, particularly restaurant operators.
Determining the extent of the problem is difficult, in part because those with rat trouble are reluctant to advertise it. The couple who recounted the story of their uninvited brunch guest spoke about their rat problem on condition that they not be identified. As another woman who had them in her kitchen explained: “People might start turning down dinner invitations to our house.”
Experts say such infestations surge and recede periodically throughout Southern California. Ventura and Orange counties reported similar problems with record rat infestations about a year ago.
Los Angeles County Health Department officials say they receive about 20,000 calls a year from residents complaining about rats in and around homes. The health officials say they haven’t noticed any significant countywide increase in calls recently.
Residents on the Westside and exterminators who serve the area, however, say the infestations have increased significantly in the past year. And experts say the recent wet weather has increased food sources, and in turn is fostering an additional surge in the rat population.
Jack Herson, president of Fume-a-Pest, a Los Angeles extermination company, said: “The situation is about 20% worse now on the Westside than it was three years ago. Rats live very well off the citrus, lush vegetation and other food sources.” Herson said his company gets about 15 calls a day about rats from residents throughout Los Angeles County.
The population increase has been clearly documented in two Westside locations, the Ballona Wetlands and the El Segundo Dunes Reserve near Los Angeles International Airport, where Jesus Maldonado, a research associate at the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum and a doctorate student in mammalogy at UCLA, has done field studies.
Maldonado said Southern California’s problems are caused by two kinds of rat, neither of which is native to the region: the Norway rat, better known as the sewer or brown rat, and the more common roof rat. (The indigenous wood rat stays mostly in undeveloped areas and is rarely a bother.) The Norway rat has a tail longer than its body and a long, sharp nose. The roof rat has smaller ears and a shorter snout.
Norway rats are most often found on or near the ground and tend to nest in basements, crawl spaces, storm drains and sewers. They prefer a high-protein diet foraged mostly from trash cans and sewers.
Roof rats live mostly in high places, including trees and attics. Maldonado said they are especially common in Venice and Santa Monica, where there is an abundance of lush landscaping--especially palm trees--and predators are few. Predominantly vegetarian, they are particularly fond of fruits.
“My research has shown that there is definitely an increase in the roof rat, the Norway rat and mouse populations,” said Maldonado. “The drought kept the population down, but because of precipitation we are definitely seeing an increase in new shoots of grass and other herbaceous food.
“With adequate conditions, rats have the potential to reproduce exponentially, causing a population explosion,” he said. “There is nothing to keep the population in check because there has been a lack of predators in L.A. for a long time.”
Female rats in their yearlong life span can have as many as 84 babies. At that rate, an average house’s infestation of three to 12 adult rats can quickly multiply into nightmarish numbers.
One day last week, Dewey Pest Control service technician DeJuan Turner was checking rat traps in a Bel-Air house surrounded by lush green hillsides. The owners called Turner after they discovered that rats were coming out at night and eating the fruit left out to ripen next to their kitchen sink.
Turner said: “I call rats the Michael Jordan of the rodent world because of how athletic they are. They can jump (horizontally and vertically) and clear three feet. People try to flush them down toilets, but they swim through the sewer pipes until they get out the other end. A rat only needs an opening the size of a quarter to fit through. If their nose can fit through, they can flatten their body out to make it.”
And, according to Turner, rats are adaptable and have memories. If they see one of their comrades die in a trap or from poisoning, he said, they never go back to that spot.
Santa Monica resident Elizabeth Rocker has had a recurring problem with rats in her attic and thinks the problem is serious.
“I don’t think anyone knows how bad a problem it is in Santa Monica,” Rocker said. “I’ve lived here for 17 years and we’ve had them in our other house and this one. A part of it is attributed to all the building going on in Santa Monica that disturbs their living space. I have also found that when my trees are fruiting, I have a problem. You hear this pitter-patter in the attic and you just want to kill them.”
Sharon Davis, environmental health specialist for the Los Angeles County Health Department, confirmed that new construction tends to cause a significant increase in rats, because it destroys their nests and food sources.
County health officials warn that rats are more than just a source of aggravation.
“The real concern with rodents is bubonic plague and murine typhus,” said Franklin Hall, chief of vector-borne disease surveillance for the health department.
Bubonic plague, a bacterial illness that causes swollen lymph glands and high fever, is the disease that killed an estimated one-third of Europe’s population in a 14th-Century epidemic known as the Black Death. Spread by fleas from infected rats, the disease nowadays can be treated with antibiotics and is rarely fatal. In the last 14 years, there have been four confirmed cases in Los Angeles County.
Murine typhus, a less serious illness that causes fever and skin eruptions, is carried by rats, feral cats, opossums and ground squirrels. The county records an average of about five cases a year, Hall said.
County health workers test for the diseases annually by taking a sampling of fleas and blood from ground squirrels.
Eradicating rats, Hall said, is an impossible task.
“We have become part of their habitat and they’re here to stay unless we start living in domes,” he said.
In lieu of domes, perhaps one man’s successful abatement of rats with an army of mousers is worth consideration.
Rudolph Mattoni, a biologist in charge of the El Segundo Dunes restoration project near Los Angeles International Airport, lives in a house in the Santa Monica Mountains with five cats. He and Maldonado, the Natural History Museum mammalogist, agree that cats are probably the best defense.
“We have an enormous number of rats, who are about twice the size of laboratory rats, out here,” Mattoni said. “My cats love them and are enormously successful at catching them. They usually will bring us the mother and the whole litter of eight or so babies. With all this wet weather, they haven’t been as active. But I expect they’ll be dragging them in to us any day now.”
Curbing Rodents Pest-control experts recommend these measures to minimize rat problems around the home:
* Do not leave filled pet food dishes outdoors.
* Trim or remove thick, leafy plants such as ivy where rodents may hide or nest.
* Prune tree limbs and plants at least 18 inches away from houses, fences and utility lines. Rodents often use such branches for travel.
* Remove fallen fruit from the ground and harvest fruit promptly.
* Use metal or hard-plastic garbage containers and keep them covered tightly.
* Store firewood or lumber on a platform at least 18 inches off the ground and 12 inches from a wall.
* Plug holes and crevices that are larger than a half-inch in diameter; install wire mesh over rooftop air vents or around openings in the foundation of house.
* Put away all food in kitchen.